Jonathan Sacks

Emeritus Chief Rabbi The Right Honourable
The Lord Sacks
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
In office
1 September 1991  1 September 2013
Preceded by The Lord Jakobovits
Succeeded by Ephraim Mirvis
Member of the House of Lords
Assumed office
1 September 2009
Personal details
Born Jonathan Henry Sacks (Yaakov Zvi)
(1948-03-08) 8 March 1948
London, England
Nationality United Kingdom
Political party Crossbench
Spouse(s) Elaine Taylor Sacks
Children Joshua, Dina and Gila
Alma mater Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge
New College, Oxford
King's College London
Religion Modern Orthodox Judaism
Awards Canterbury Medal
Semicha Jews' College and Etz Chaim Yeshiva (London)

Jonathan Henry Sacks, Baron Sacks (Hebrew: Yaakov Zvi, יעקב צבי; born 8 March 1948) is a British rabbi, philosopher and scholar of Judaism.

He served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. As the spiritual head of the United Synagogue, the largest synagogue body in the UK, he was the Chief Rabbi of those Orthodox synagogues, but was not recognized as the religious authority for the haredi Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations or for the progressive movements such as Masorti, Reform and Liberal Judaism.[1][2] As Chief Rabbi, Sacks formally carried the title of Av Beit Din (head) of the London Beth Din.

Since stepping down as Chief Rabbi, in addition to his international travelling and speaking engagements and prolific writing, Sacks has served as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University and the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University. He has also been appointed as Professor of Law, Ethics and the Bible at King's College London.[3]

He won the Templeton Prize for 2016.[4]


Sacks was born in London, England on 8 March 1948. As a child he was educated at St Mary's Primary School and Christ's College Finchley. He completed his higher education at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge where he gained a first-class Honours Degree in Philosophy. While a student at Cambridge, Sacks traveled to New York to meet Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, to discuss a variety of issues relating to religion, faith and philosophy. Schneerson urged Sacks to seek rabbinic ordination and enter the rabbinate.[5] Sacks subsequently continued his studies at New College, Oxford as well as King's College London, achieving a Doctorate in 1981. That same year, Sacks received his rabbinic ordination from Jew’s College and London's Etz Chaim Yeshiva.[6] He married Elaine in 1970 and together they had three children: Joshua, Dina and Gila.

His first rabbinic appointment was as the Rabbi for the Golders Green synagogue (1978–82) in London. In 1983 he became Rabbi of the prestigious Marble Arch synagogue in Central London, a position he held until 1990. Between 1984 and 1990, Sacks also served as Principal of Jews’ College, the world’s oldest rabbinical seminary.[7] Dr Sacks was inducted to serve as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth on 1 September 1991, a position he held until 1 September 2013.

Sacks was made a Knight Bachelor in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2005 "for services to the Community and to Inter-faith Relations".[8][9] He was made an Honorary Freeman of the London Borough of Barnet in September 2006.[10] On 13 July 2009 it was announced that Sacks was recommended for a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords by the House of Lords Appointments Commission.[11][12] He took the title "Baron Sacks", of Aldgate in the London,[13] and sits as a crossbencher. Sacks is a vegetarian.[14]

A visiting professor at several universities in Britain, the United States and Israel, Sacks holds 16 honorary degrees, including a doctorate of divinity conferred on him in September 2001 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, to mark his first ten years in office as Chief Rabbi. In recognition of his work, Sacks has won several international awards, including the Jerusalem Prize in 1995 for his contribution to diaspora Jewish life and The Ladislaus Laszt Ecumenical and Social Concern Award from Ben Gurion University in Israel in 2011.[3]

The author of 25 books, Sacks has published commentaries to the daily Jewish prayer book siddur and has completed commentaries to the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach festival prayer books (machzorim) to date. His most recent secular book – The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning – was published in July 2011. A number of his books have won literary awards, including the Grawemeyer Prize for Religion in 2004 for The Dignity of Difference, and a National Jewish Book Award in 2000 for A Letter in the Scroll.[3] Covenant & Conversation: Genesis was also awarded a National Jewish Book Award in 2009, and most recently his commentary to the Pesach festival prayer book won the Modern Jewish Thought and Experience Dorot Foundation Award in the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards in America.[15] His Covenant & Conversation commentaries on the weekly Torah portion are read by thousands of people in Jewish communities around the world.[16]

Sacks' contribution to wider British society have also been recognised. A regular contributor to national media, frequently appearing on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day or writing the Credo column or opinion pieces in The Times, Sacks was awarded The Sanford St Martin's Trust Personal Award for 2013 for "his advocacy of Judaism and religion in general". He was invited to the wedding of Prince William of Wales and Kate Middleton as a representative for the Jewish community.[17]

At a Gala Dinner held in Central London in May 2013 to mark the completion of the Chief Rabbi's time in office, HRH The Prince of Wales called Sacks a "light unto this nation", "a steadfast friend" and "a valued adviser" whose "guidance on any given issue has never failed to be of practical value and deeply grounded in the kind of wisdom that is increasingly hard to come by".[18]


Much has been written about Sacks' philosophical contribution to Judaism and beyond, most recently in three works: (1) a volume on his work entitled Universalizing Particularity that forms part of The Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers series, edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron W. Hughes;[19] (2) a book entitled Radical Responsibility edited by Michael J. Harris, Daniel Rynhold and Tamra Wright;[20] and (3) a book entitled Morasha Kehillat Yaakov edited by Rabbi Michael Pollak and Dayan Shmuel Simons.[21]

Early influencers

In a pamphlet written to mark the completion of his time as Chief Rabbi entitled "A Judaism Engaged with the World",[22] Sacks cites three individuals who have had a profound impact on his own philosophical thinking. The first figure was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who "was fully aware of the problem of the missing Jews... inventing the idea, revolutionary in its time, of Jewish outreach... [He] challenged me to lead."[22]:10 Indeed, Sacks called him "one of the greatest Jewish leaders, not just of our time, but of all time"[23] The second was Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik whom Sacks described as "the greatest Orthodox thinker of the time [who] challenged me to think."[22]:10–11 Sacks argued that for Rav Soloveichik "Jewish philosophy, he said, had to emerge from halakhah, Jewish law. Jewish thought and Jewish practice were not two (sic) different things but the same thing seen from different perspectives. Halakhah was a way of living a way of thinking about the world – taking abstract ideas and making them real in everyday life."[22]:11 The third figure was Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, a former principal of the London School of Jewish Studies. Sacks called Rabinovitch "One of the great Maimonidean scholars of our time, [who] he taught us, his students, that Torah leadership demands the highest intellectual and moral courage. He did this in the best way possible: by personal example. The following thoughts, which are his, are a small indication of what I learned from him – not least that Torah is, among other things, a refusal to give easy answers to difficult questions." [24]

Universalism vs particularism

As a rabbi, social philosopher, proponent of interfaith dialogue and public intellectual, Tirosh-Samuelson and Hughes note that "...his [Sacks'] vision - informed as it is by the concerns of modern Orthodoxy - is paradoxically one of the most universalizing voices within contemporary Judaism. Sacks possesses a rare ability to hold in delicate balance the universal demands of the modern, multicultural world with the particularism associated with Judaism." [25]:1 This is a view supported by Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo who wrote in The Jerusalem Post that Sacks' "confidence in the power of Judaism and its infinite wisdom enabled him to enter the lion’s den, taking on famous philosophers, scientists, religious thinkers and sociologists and showing them that Judaism had something to teach that they couldn’t afford to miss if they wanted to be at the forefront of philosophy and science." [26] Harris and Rynhold, in their introduction to Radical Responsibility argued that: "The special contribution made by the thought of Chief Rabbi Sacks is that it not only continues the venerable Jewish philosophical tradition of maintaining traditional faith in the face of external intellectual challenges, but also moves beyond this tradition by showing how core Jewish teachings can address the dilemmas of the secular world itself. What make Lord Sacks' approach so effective is that he is able to do so without any exception of the wider world taking on Judaism's theological beliefs."[20]:xvi

Torah v'Chokhma

The frame work for Sacks' philosophical approach and his interaction between the universal and the particular is not too dissimilar from those positions adopted by other leading Orthodox thinkers of recent times. The favoured phrase of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was Torah im derekh eretz, 'Torah and general culture'; for Rabbi Norman Lamm it was Torah u-mada. 'Torah and Science'. For Sacks, his favoured phrase has been Torah vehokhmah, 'Torah and Wisdom'. As noted in the introduction to Radical Responsibility: "Torah, for Jonathan Sacks represents the particularistic, inherited teachings of Judaism, while hokhmah (wisdom) refers to the universal realm of the sciences and humanities."[20]:xviii Framed in religious terms, as Sacks sets out in his book Future Tense: "Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be."[27]

Tirosh-Samuelson and Hughes note that whilst Torah v'Chokhmah is certainly a valid overarching framework, they note that Sacks' perspective is one rooted in modern orthodoxy: "Although he [Sacks] will try to understand various denominations of Judaism, he is always quick to point out that Orthodoxy cannot recognize the legitimacy of interpretations of Judaism that abandon fundamental beliefs of halakhic (Jewish law) authority. Judaism that departs from the truth and acceptance of the halakha is a departure from authentic Judaism and, he reasons, is tantamount to the accommodation of secularism. So, while Sacks will develop a highly inclusive account of the world's religions, there were times when he was critical of the denominations within Judaism."[28]

Chief Rabbi

In his Installation address upon succeeding Lord Jakobovits as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in September 1991, Sacks called for a Decade of Renewal which would "revitalize British Jewry’s great powers of creativity".[29] He said this renewal should be based on five central values: "love of every Jew, love of learning, love of God, a profound contribution to British society and an unequivocal attachment to Israel." [29] Sacks said he wanted to be "a catalyst for creativity, to encourage leadership in others, and to let in the fresh air of initiative and imagination".[29] This led to a series of innovative communal projects including Jewish Continuity, a national foundation for Jewish educational programmes and outreach; the Association of Jewish Business Ethics; the Chief Rabbinate Awards for Excellence; the Chief Rabbinate Bursaries, and Community Development, a national scheme to enhance Jewish community life. The Chief Rabbi began his second decade of office with a call to 'Jewish Responsibility' and a renewed commitment to the ethical dimension of Judaism.[30]


"No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth"

After the publication of his book The Dignity of Difference, a group of Haredi rabbis, most notably Rabbis Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Bezalel Rakow, accused Sacks of heresy against what they consider the traditional Orthodox viewpoint. According to them, some words seemed to imply an endorsement of pure relativism between religions, and that Judaism is not the sole true religion, e.g. "No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth." This led him to rephrase more clearly some sentences in the book for its second edition, though he refused to recall books already in the stores.[31]

In his "Preface to the Second Edition" of the book, Sacks wrote that certain passages in the book had been misconstrued: he had already explicitly criticised cultural and religious relativism in his book, and he did not deny Judaism's uniqueness. He also stressed however that mainstream rabbinic teachings teach that wisdom, righteousness and the possibility of a true relationship with God are all available in non-Jewish cultures and religions as an ongoing heritage from the covenant that God made with Noah and all his descendants, so the tradition teaches that one does not need to be Jewish to know God or truth or to attain salvation.[32][33] As this diversity of covenantal bonds implies, however, traditional Jewish sources do clearly deny that any one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth. Monopolistic and simplistic claims of universal truth he has characterized as imperialistic, pagan and Platonic, and not Jewish at all.[34] The book received international acclaim, winning the Grawemeyer Award for Religion in 2004.[35]

Efforts to accommodate Haredi Jews

A book by the British historian and journalist Meir Persoff, Another Way, Another Time, has argued that "Sacks’s top priority has been staying in the good graces of the Haredi, or strictly Orthodox, faction, whose high birthrate has made it the fastest-growing component of British Jewry." [36]

Relationship with the non-Orthodox denominations

Sacks provoked considerable controversy in the Anglo-Jewish community in 1996 when he refused to attend the funeral service of the late Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn and for a private letter he had written in Hebrew, which (in translation) asserted that Auschwitz survivor Gryn was "among those who destroy the faith", was leaked and published. He wrote further that he was an "enemy" of the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements, leading some to reject the notion that he is "Chief Rabbi" for all Jews in Britain. He attended a memorial meeting for Gryn, a move that brought the wrath of some in the ultra-Orthodox community.[37][38] Rabbi Dow Marmur, an Israel-based progressive Rabbi, argued that after attending the memorial service, Sacks then attempted to placate the ultra-Orthodox community, an attempt which Marmur has described as “neurotic and cowardly."[39]

Later, in a letter to The Jewish Chronicle in May 2013, Jackie Gryn, the wife of Rabbi Gryn, wrote: "I feel the time has come for me to lay to rest, once and for all , the idea… that there ever was a ‘Hugo Gryn Affair’, as far as I am concerned, regarding the absence of the Chief Rabbi at the funeral of my late husband, Hugo ... From the beginning, relations were cordial and sympathetic and have remained so", she wrote. "There has never been any personal grievance between us concerning his non-attendance at the funeral, which promoted such venomous and divisive comments and regrettably continues to do so."[40]

Sacks responded to the incident by rethinking his relationship with the non-Orthodox movements, eventually developing what he called the "two principles". Responding to an interview shortly before his retirement, he wrote that "As a result of the turbulence at that time, I was forced to think this whole issue through and I came up with these two principles; on all matters that affect us as Jews regardless of our religious differences we work together regardless of our religious differences, and on all things that touch our religious differences we agree to differ, but with respect. As a result of those two principles relations between Reform and Orthodox have got much better and are actually a model for the rest of the Jewish world. Progressive rabbis sit with me on the top table of the Council of Christians and Jews, we stand together for Israel. All of this flowed from those two principles. Until then there had been a view never to do anything with the non-Orthodox movements but once you thought it through you saw that there were all sorts of opportunities."

Rabbi Sacks would later draw some criticism when he and his Beth Din prevented the retired Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who had helped establish the British branch of the Masorti movement, from being called up for the Reading of the Torah on the Saturday before his granddaughter's wedding.[41]

Secularism and Europe's changing demographics

Sacks has expressed concern at what he regards as the negative effects of materialism and secularism in European society, arguing that they undermine the basic values of family life and lead to selfishness. In 2009 Sacks gave an address claiming that Europeans have chosen consumerism over the self-sacrifice of parenting children, and that "the major assault on religion today comes from the neo-Darwinians". He argued that Europe is in population decline "because non-believers lack shared values of family and community that religion has".[42][43] [44]

Consumerism and Steve Jobs

Rabbi Sacks made remarks at an inter-faith reception attended by the Queen, in November 2011, in which he criticised what he believed to be the selfish consumer culture that has only brought unhappiness. "The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i. When you're an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about 'I', you don’t do terribly well." [45] [46] [47] In a later statement, the Chief Rabbi's office said "The Chief Rabbi meant no criticism of either Steve Jobs personally or the contribution Apple has made to the development of technology in the 21st century."[45]

Position on gay marriage

In July 2012 a group of prominent British Jews criticised Sacks for opposing plans to allow civil marriage for gays and lesbians.[48] Sacks' position on gay marriage however is contested, as he has since argued that he "understood the fear that gays have of prejudice and persecution" [49] and went on to say in lecture on the institution of marriage, that a world that persecutes homosexuals is one "which we should never return." [50]

Interfaith dialogue

Rabbi Sacks is an advocate of interfaith dialogue and sits on the Board of World Religious Leaders for the Elijah Interfaith Institute.[51]

Current positions

Previous positions held

Sacks is also a frequent guest on both television and radio, and regularly contributes to the national press. He delivered the 1990 BBC Reith Lectures on The Persistence of Faith.[52]


As author

As editor

Awards received

See also


  1. Abrams, Hester (7 December 1991). "Philosopher is new leader of Britain's Jews : Educational standards, disintegrating family concern rabbi". The Record. Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. p. C11. He is officially head of the mainstream United Synagogue, but is not recognized as religious leader by many in the progressive Reform and Liberal movements
  2. Butt, Riazat (13 July 2009). "Chief Rabbi joins House of Lords". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 15 August 2009. The decision to confer a title on Sacks may anger Jews from both the progressive and strictly orthodox branches who do not recognise him as their religious leader
  3. 1 2 3 "About Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks - Rabbi Sacks".
  4. Herlinger, Chris. "Lord Jonathan Sacks wins Templeton Prize".
  5. Jonathan Sacks, "How The Rebbe Changed My Life". Nov 28, 2011.
  6. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 57665. p. 1. 10 June 2005.
  7. The London Gazette: no. 58099. p. 12615. 15 September 2006.
  8. Honorary Freemen of the London Borough of Barnet. (29 September 2009). Retrieved on 3 December 2011 Archived 2 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  9. Paul, Jonny (July 13, 2009). "UK chief rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks gets peerage". Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2009-07-20.
  10. House of Lords Appointments Commission. (13 July 2009). Retrieved on 3 December 2011. Archived 16 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  11. The London Gazette: no. 59178. p. 15388. 8 September 2009.
  12. Sacks, Jonathan (2001-06-06). "Faith Lectures: The Messianic Idea Today". Retrieved 2016-08-19. But I can't say very much about chickens because I'm a vegetarian and I stay milchik all the time.
  13. "Sacks' Passover guide scoops prestigious US book award".
  14. "Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks".
  15. "Royal wedding guest list". BBC News. 23 April 2011.
  16. "Prince pays tribute to Chief Rabbi". The Jewish Chronicle. 25 June 2013.
  17. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava (1 October 2013). "[(Jonathan Sacks: Universalizing Particularity )]". Brill via Amazon.
  18. 1 2 3 Harris, Michael J. (1 January 2013). Rynhold, Daniel; Wright, Tamra, eds. "Radical Responsibility:: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks". Maggid via Amazon.
  19. Pollak, Michael; Simons, Shmuel (1 October 2014). Pollak, Rabbi Michael; Simons, Dayan Shmuel, eds. "Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks". The Toby Press via Amazon.
  20. 1 2 3 4 A Judaism Engaged with the World
  21. Jonathan Mark, The Chief Rabbi And The Rebbe. The Jewish Week, 11/29/11.
  22. Of What Was Moses Afraid? Covenant & Conversation for Shemot 5768 by R. Sacks
  23. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Aaron W. Hughes, ed. (2013). "Jonathan Sacks: an intellectual portrait". Jonathan Sacks: Universalizing Particularity. Brill. pp. 1–20. ISBN 9789004249813.
  24. The rebellion of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Jerusalem Post, 7th September 2013
  25. Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), p.221
  26. Universalizing Particularity, p.7
  27. 1 2 3 "New British Chief Rabbi Speaks of Need for Decade of Renewal". 3 September 1991.
  28. "Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks".
  29. Petre, Jonathan (15 February 2003). "Chief Rabbi revises book after attack by critics". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  30. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 2nd edition, 2003, pp. vii, 52–65
  31. Faith Lectures: Jewish Identity: The Concept of a Chosen People. Chief Rabbi (1 December 1990). Retrieved on 3 December 2011. Archived 17 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  32. See Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, Chapter 3: "Exorcising Plato's Ghost," and reaffirmed in his book, Future Tense, 2009, Chapter 4: "The Other: Judaism, Christianity and Islam."
  33. MP9996 (16 May 2010). "Is Sacks Britain's Last Chief Rabbi?". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 12 October 2013.
  34. "Jonathan Sacks: Defender of the faith". The Independent. 8 September 2001. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
  35. Ian Burrell, "Leaked letter widens schism in Jewry", The Independent, 15 March 1997
  36. Simon Rocker (22 October 2010). "Lord Sacks criticised by progressive rabbi". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 12 October 2013.
  37. Simon Rocker (9 May 2013). "No more talk of Gryn Affair, says Hugo's wife". The Jewish Chronicle. London. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
  38. "Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs". The Times. London. 4 July 2006. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  39. "Europeans too selfish to have children, says Chief Rabbi". The Daily Telegraph. London. 5 November 2009. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  40. Butt, Riazat (5 November 2009). "Falling birth rate is killing Europe, says chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  41. "Selfish culture is killing secular Europe, says Chief Rabbi". Daily Mail. London. 6 November 2009.
  42. 1 2 Lee Moran 'It's all i, i, i nowadays': Chief Rabbi blasts late Apple boss Steve Jobs for helping to create a selfish consumer society. Mail Online. 21 November 2011
  43. Chief Rabbi blames Apple for helping create selfish society. Telegraph. Retrieved on 2011-12-03.
  44. Rabbi vs. Steve Jobs: iThis & iThat cause sadness – OTOH: On the other hand. Retrieved on 3 December 2011.
  45. Rocker, Simon (5 July 2012). "Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks attacked over gay marriage opposition". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 12 October 2013.
  46. Malnick, Edward (25 Aug 2013). "I understand gay people's fears, says Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks". The Telegraph. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  47. Sacks, Jonathan (17 November 2014). "Rabbi". Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  48. The Elijah Interfaith Institute - Jewish Members of the Board of World Religious Leaders
  49. "Jonathan Sacks: The Persistence of Faith: 1990, The Reith Lectures - BBC Radio 4".
  50. "Templeton Prize - Current Winner".
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Jewish titles
Preceded by
Lord Jakobovits
Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth
Succeeded by
Ephraim Mirvis
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